As at Monday 9th March 2020
The situation regarding the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, is changing daily. From an employment perspective, it raises questions of immigration, health and safety, data protection and employment law issues.
The coronavirus is understood to be spread by respiratory droplets with the incubation period spanning, typically, two to fourteen days. Common signs of infection are respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The World Health Organisation declared it a global emergency in January due to its concern that the virus would be spread to countries outside China with weaker health systems.
Employers owe a duty of care to its employees and it must take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of its employees. If it knowingly requires an employee to attend work where they have been advised to self-isolate, it may be in breach of its duty to the employee and to others. This is particularly the case where other employees are vulnerable, perhaps due to other health conditions or pregnancy. In such cases, a risk assessment should be carried out to consider the risk and measures to protect them.
Employers should encourage employees to report any suspected signs of the virus but also to seek medical advice or notify the employer if they are at particular risk as this may not always be obvious to the employer.
Where there is no contractual obligation on an employee to do so, requiring an employee to take holiday for a period of self-isolation is likely to give rise to issues. However, an employer may wish to discuss and offer the option of taking holiday if an employee without symptoms wishes to self-isolate because they are high risk. The reason for this is that if the employee is not symptomatic but has voluntarily chosen to self-isolate they are not ‘sick’ and therefore may not be entitled to sick pay.
Sick pay is either contractual or statutory. An employee’s contract will specify whether the employer will pay contractual sick pay. In the absence of any contractual entitlement to sick pay, an employee or worker may be entitled to statutory sick pay where they are advised by a doctor or NHS 111 to self-isolate. Where contractual sick pay is provided, it is good practice to pay this in those circumstances.
Current government and medical guidance requires employees returning from high risk areas to self-isolate if they are showing symptoms. However, some employers are asking employees to self-isolate irrespective of any symptoms as a precaution.
Employees have the right to take a reasonable amount of unpaid dependent’s leave, if necessary, to care for children or make arrangements for their care, for example, if their school or nursery has been closed. Unpaid parental leave for up to four weeks per year per child may also be taken. Alternatively, an employee may choose to take holiday.
Lengthy disruptions to business can have severe consequences for business and therefore it is important that the risks are managed sensibly. Keeping up to date with medical and travel advice would be sensible, as well as disseminating good hygiene advice and tips for preventing the spread of the virus. Top tips include hand washing, sneezing into disposable tissues or a sleeve if a tissue is not available. Some employers are sending coronavirus boxes to office containing tissues, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitiser so there is little excuse not to use them. After all, failure to obey a reasonable management instruction could give rise to a disciplinary sanction.
Please note that this information is for guidance only and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking full legal advice on specific facts and circumstances.